Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Post-Bush America

Random thoughts on the prospects of post-Bush US

From The Statesman
ND Batra

The present global financial crisis that threatens to undo decades of economic growth has made it crystal clear that the US alone cannot set the world right. To lead the world, since it is still the only power that can play that role and is willing to do so, the US must seek global cooperation of the willing as well as the unwilling.

The US needs a deeper engagement with the world through international economic aid, building democratic institutions and strengthening weaker or failing states so that they don’t become havens for terrorists. But the US cannot depend solely upon its muscle power to subdue a restive people or bolster a failing state. Such hit-and-run scary and battle-scarred people, whether they are in the badlands of Pakistan-Afghanistan, Kashmir or elsewhere, need to be engaged culturally, economically and politically to sever them from an Islamic militant nihilistic ideology masquerading as anti-Americanism. Preemptive policy needs re-examination in the sense that it may not always be productive, though as an offensive-defensive tool it cannot be permanently eschewed.

Much has been written about Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari’s bold and courageous statement to The Wall Street Journal that India has never been a threat to Pakistan. He called the militant groups operating in Kashmir terrorists, adding that though some others including former President Pervez Musharraf would have preferred to call them freedom fighters, he did not share that view. He also recognised the economic reality that there is no other economic survival for nations like them. We have to trade with our neighbours first, he said. These are not the views of a maverick or a lone ranger. Mr Zardari represents a steadily growing mode of consciousness in Pakistan that cooperation is more productive than confrontation in the interconnected global world. But this sentiment is not a sudden development. During the 2002 brinkmanship between India and Pakistan, the US by sharing selective military intelligence with both countries played a low-profile but significant role in defusing the crisis; and since then Washington has been unobtrusively supporting the process of normalisation.
So there is a lesson. The only way the US can exercise its influence is through the use of diplomatic power, the power of persuasion through cooperation, commonality of national interests and developing common goals such as, apart from fighting terrorism, global warming, financial stability, economic growth, eliminating AIDS and pandemics like bird flu.

Diplomatic power arises from the attraction of a nation’s culture and values, apart from its economic and military prowess. Most people around the world perceive American culture as a culture of Hollywood, pop music, blockbuster movies and steamy television programmes, but that’s a half-truth. American culture is a culture of openness, of freedom and open roads that leads to the free marketplace of goods and ideas. It is a culture of optimism that holds the possibility of expanding human horizons, the present economic gloom notwithstanding.

India like many other countries has fully grasped the power of US openness, the free marketplace, and has consequently become one of the fastest growing world’s economies. If the next US administration were to close its doors on India by reducing outsourcing, India’s technology-driven export economy would receive a setback, apart from hurting the US businesses. Fortunately, from an economic and diplomatic point of view, both Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain are equally good for India.

China beyond any doubt has benefited tremendously by opening its economy, though it has yet to open itself fully to other cultural influences including free expression and democracy. By opening its markets to China the US has exercised its diplomatic and cultural power to help transform China into a responsible global power. Americans may be resented in some places, but even today in spite of gloom doom atmospherics they are also the most admired and envied people in the world.

The faith in the dollar is undiminished. Wall Street is still the last best hope of global finance. A country can become attractive by “co-opting people rather than coercing them”, says Mr Joseph Nye of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. International influence, he believes, “comes from an effective aid and information programme abroad. What is needed is increased investment in soft power, the complex machinery of interdependence, rather than in hard power ~ that is, expensive new weapons systems”. Although fighting terrorism requires hard power, the attraction of the soft power, “is much cheaper than coercion, and an asset that needs to be nourished”. Just as trade with China and rising prosperity has changed the Chinese people giving them new hopes and new dreams, as you saw during the Beijing Olympics, a similar policy might transform North Korea, Iran and Pakistan as well, as it is happening today in Indonesia, the largest Muslin democracy in the world that has crushed Islamic terrorism and is showing rapid economic growth.

All battles ultimately have to be fought and won in the minds and hearts of the people. Effective global communication, wrote Edward Kaufman in The Battle for Hearts and Minds, “strengthens the traditional triad of diplomacy, economic leverage, and military power and is the fourth dimension of foreign conflict resolution...Perceptions change when outside information challenges certain assumptions”. More than anything else it is the US institutions of higher education, global philanthropy and to some extent corporate America, in spite of its shortcomings, that make the US a most attractive country.

The post-Bush administration must explore new directions in international relations instead of using only pre-emptive power. It is important that the US use the cultural power of its global media to present an alternative view of reality to the rest of the world. Unlike the spectacular but catastrophic invasion of Iraq, the results of such cultural engagements would not be immediately visible but they would be long lasting.

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University)

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